- The Washington Times - Friday, June 16, 2006

What do writer Ernest Hemingway, playwright Clifford Odets, publisher Joseph Pulitzer and architect Philip Johnson have in common? They all collected the works of artist Paul Klee.

The appeal of Klee’s delicate, childlike imagery to such tough-minded men is understood easily from a new exhibit opening today at the Phillips Collection. The richly dense “Klee and America” covers the full spectrum of his hard-to-categorize modernism, from cubist watercolors to hieroglyphic-scratched oils. Bringing together 87 paintings and drawings from museums and private collections around the country, it focuses on the success and influence of the Swiss-German artist in the United States.

Klee never traveled to our shores and, unlike his European colleagues, wasn’t much interested in our popular culture — apart from dancer Josephine Baker, whose stylized portrait is in the show. However, he benefited greatly from American patronage during the 1930s, when the Nazis condemned his art as “degenerate” and forced him to leave his teaching post in Dusseldorf. In 1933, Klee fled Germany for Switzerland, where he died in 1940. The European market for his work collapsed even before the onset of World War II.

In this country, early support of the artist came from influential female art patrons, Galka Scheyer in California and Katherine Dreier in New York, who began buying Klee’s works in the 1920s. Alfred H. Barr Jr., the founding director of the Museum of Modern Art, significantly advanced the artist’s reputation in 1930 when he mounted “Paul Klee,” the first one-man show of a living European painter at his newly opened museum. Klee exhibits in other American cities followed, exposing the public to the artist’s enigmatic creations.

The exhibit includes photographs and short profiles of the art-world impresarios who forged connections with Klee, including German-emigre dealers and collectors who championed his modern art in the 1930s and ‘40s. One of these transplants was architect Mies van der Rohe, who taught with Klee at the Bauhaus and owned 15 of his works, more than the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation.

Another influential Klee booster was Duncan Phillips, who installed 16 paintings by the artist in an old sewing room on the second floor of his mansion-turned-museum off Dupont Circle. The small space perfectly suited Klee’s diminutive formats and allowed visitors to become immersed in his intensely calligraphic work. Among those drawn to the Klee Room, in existence from 1948 to 1982, were Washington artists Kenneth Noland, Morris Louis and Gene Davis.

The current Phillips exhibit offers a similarly intimate viewing experience, including a gallery simulating the original Klee Room. Each work in the show is labeled with its complete provenance, offering an interesting history of those who bought and sold it. Mr. Hemingway purchased “Monument Under Construction,” a blue-eyed, Mount Rushmore-style head covered in ladders and scaffolding. Mexican artist Diego Rivera gave the abstracted cityscape “Pal” to his pal, painter Frida Kahlo. Pop artist Andy Warhol owned the ink drawing “Not Without Heart,” a spoof on Bauhaus furniture.

Other Klee collectors included film director Billy Wilder, politician Nelson Rockefeller and architect Walter Gropius. About 1,150 works by Klee — more than 10 percent of his output — belong to American collections.

For viewers unfamiliar with the artist, the chronologically arranged show serves as perfect introduction to Klee’s magical world. The sheer variety of the works is staggering.

“Yellow House,” a 1915 watercolor inspired by a trip to Tunisia, evidences the patchworks of color and architectural shapes that recur in his paintings. “Actor’s Mask,” a red-striped green face inspired by a Japanese woodcut, and the veiled woman in “Arab Song” reflect his interest in Asian and Middle Eastern cultures. “Sunset,” a 1930 geometric landscape patterned in pointillist-style dots, represents one of several shifts in technique, including sprayed watercolor and painting on fabric.

Some of the pieces in the exhibit presage later abstractions by artists Joan Miro, Alexander Calder and Adolph Gottlieb. As art critic Clement Greenberg noted of postwar American modernists, “Almost everybody, whether conscious of it nor not, was learning from Klee.”

Enthusiasm for Klee’s idiosyncratic work on the part of so many different American artists and collectors no doubt was attributable to his freedom and fluency of expression. A mix of cubism, surrealism, expressionism and his own invented “isms,” Klee’s playful, sometimes puzzling work is hard to pin down. The artist best described his process as “an active line on a walk, moving freely without goal,” a journey well traced in this excellent show.

WHAT: “Klee and America”

WHERE: Phillips Collection, 1600 21st St. NW

WHEN: Through Sept. 10; Tuesday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursday 10 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.; Sunday noon to 5 p.m.

ADMISSION: $12 for adults, $10 for seniors and students

PHONE: 202/387-2151

WEB SITE: www.phillipscollection.org

Youthful creations in exhibit

It’s no accident that Paul Klee’s eccentric paintings often resemble the scribblings of a child. The Swiss-German artist said he sought to express the “primitive beginnings of art,” and his own childhood drawings, which he cataloged as an adult, helped him in the process.

Visitors to the Phillips Collection’s new Klee exhibit have the opportunity to compare the artist’s mature works with his youthful sketches. A one-room exhibit next to the main show, called “When We Were Young: New Perspectives on the Art of the Child,” includes drawings made by Klee between ages 4 and 6. Penciled onto one page is an angular woman with a bent umbrella, reflecting a quirky humorousness similar to that in the adjacent “Dwarf and Mask,” an ink drawing completed when the artist was in his 40s.

Another artist self-conscious in emulating children’s art was Pablo Picasso, who admitted, “It took me many years to learn how to draw like them.” Picasso’s “Bullfight and Pigeons,” also featured in the exhibit, reveals a mastery of realism at age 9 that contrasts with the freer drawings by 3- to 17-year-olds, some by Washington schoolchildren, that crowd the gallery.

Curator Jonathan Fineberg, an art history professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, maintains that children’s art shouldn’t be judged by the ability to draw like an adult. “Kids use their drawings to make sense of their experience,” Mr. Fineberg said at the press opening. “Picasso’s childhood works are interesting not because of their academic rendering, but because of their unique way of seeing.” He and others will discuss issues raised by the exhibit in a symposium held today at the museum from 2 to 4 p.m. For more information, call 202/387-2151.

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